Toulouse, France

Nicknamed the “Ville Rose” in France, this charming red-brick City is nestled charmingly along the banks of the River Garonne and has plenty of architectural, cultural and historical gems to discover. The top three museum sites to choose from are…

1 – Le Château d’Eau

Has to be my favourite purely because for all the countries I’ve travelled to, and gallery sites that I’ve visited, I’ve never seen a museum building quite like this. It’s a converted water tower make from the red brick synonymous with Toulouse. According to a local, the tower was never sufficiently large to meet the needs of the whole City so it’s never really been utilised for its intended purpose. In 1974 the building was turned into a photography gallery, and its curved surfaces have been graced with images since that point. Today there is a second gallery underneath the body of the bridge which allows for two simultaneous exhibitions to be running.

If you head down the windy spiral staircase to the bowels of the building you’ll be able to see some of the original fittings and fixtures, including the water wheels and piping. The Gallery publishes simple paper exhibition guides in both French and English and the staff seemed very friendly on my visit. What’s more, le Château d’Eau participates in the annual Toulouse Art Festival organised by le Printemps de Septembre, acting as one of the host sites for the touring exhibitions. Small, round and perfectly formed.

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2 – Les Abattoirs

Another unusual building which has been reclaimed as a site for culture vultures in the City, this contemporary arts museum was founded on the site of a slaughterhouse (as the name suggests). Parts of the permanent collection were on display across the second floor during my visit, in a slightly haphazard hang which saw the works of Louise Nevelson in a room next to Robert Rauschenberg. These works formed part of the collection of gallerist Daniel Cordier, the singular taste accounting for the high proportion of surrealist and abstract works.

The temporary exhibition programme looked lively and different, not the usual re-hashed fodder which can circulate in some of the drier, more established types of museum. The building itself has also been stunningly and sympathetically altered from its original use, the domed central atrium area is almost Cathedral like. It seems like a good move to have made, from a factory of death to a place of display for modern art.

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Louise Nevelson, Untitled: part of the Les Abattoirs collection.

Louise Nevelson, Untitled: part of the Les Abattoirs collection.

3 – Musée des Augustins

If you can make it past the trés rude lady on the reception desk you’ll have discovered a hidden gem in the form of this museum. I went on a Saturday afternoon, normally one of the peak times for any cultural institution like this. I was expecting to be tripping over chic parents with stripey-attired children in tow and arty looking cigarette-slim types but it was largely empty.

The collection itself is a bit-hit-and-miss but features some weird and wonderful things such as gothic epitaphs, wonderfully expressive gargoyles and some accomplished 19th century paintings. My favourite part, I confess, had to be the central courtyard garden, giving a glimpse of what life might have looked like from the viewpoint of one of the 14th century Augustine monks who used to live here. The location, the tranquillity, the sights and scents of the garden were all perfect. Worth a visit if you have a couple of spare hours to fill.

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 20th May 2013

Madrid, Spain

Madrid has a great deal to offer the city weekender, not least of all in its fantastic selection of museums and galleries. There are many must sees which are too numerous to name and give justice to here, the Prado being the most obvious, but I’ve briefly outlined my top three.

1. The Reina Sofia

Making a pilgrimage to see a work of art gives rise to lots of expectations. It also, inevitably, brings you into contact with hoards of adoring crowds who have made the same dedicated trip, presided over by guides of every nationality. In this case they are all here to see the Picasso, and it doesn’t disappoint. The monochromatic masterpiece is exactly as imagined, exactly as we’ve all seen a hundred times over printed in various books and papers. The small thrill at having seen Guernica, in my case, was combined with a sense of familiarity and a comfort of already having known it so intimately. The double edged sword of mass reproduction brings notoriety and adoration, but also, unfortunately, dulls excitement. I wouldn’t, however, dissuade you from making the trip. Guernica is undoubtedly fabulous, and there is certainly more to the Reina Sofia than this one work.

The room adjoining Guernica displays the preparatory sketches which burst with life. A quick scan of the four walls creates a feeling akin to being inside a crazy nightmare, with repetitions of slightly altered motifs. There are braying horses rearing on their hooves and eternally weeping women. Another treat on this level is the George Grosz drawing, España, from 1937. A parade of imprisoned men walk with their hands on their heads, whilst a group of three sneering men watch on. The effect is unsettling, hairs rise on the arms, but it’s a work that demands viewing. Located close-by is a small and unassuming room of war photographs, not graphic or grisly, but shots of soldiers at work. Care has been taken to curate this floor intelligently.

The whole museum is worthy of additional exploration, if not for anything other than its great architecture and al fresco sculptural adornments.

2. Circulo de Bellas Artes

Another building worth visiting for its architecture, the interiors of this palatial museum consist of vast atriums adorned with gilt framed battle scenes and marbled sculptures. The highlights of the collection span across a range of genres and timeframes. There are the ubiquitous works by Gris, Picasso and Goya. Some of my favourite finds were on the second floor, the series of three wax reliefs by Nicolas Englebert Letto, c.1740. Dresden, Naples and Jerusalem are depicted in individual scenes, each lovingly and intricately crafted. These encased worlds are populated by tiny soldiers, boats and buildings, and are a true source of wonder.

This museum seems to be an under-valued resource; there were only a handful of other visitors on my trip. If you make the visit you may well find yourself the single occupant of a gallery. Should this be the case don’t be disconcerted to find yourself followed from room to room by the guards, 99% of the collection is displayed unglazed and the sculptures are nearly all on open display.

3. Caixa Forum

To continue the recurring theme, this arts centre is another piece of fantastic architecture. The old building has been reconditioned and built back up brick by brick. The orange stonework looks perilously balanced in the overhang at the base of the building, while the rich rust at the very top contrasts sharply with the living wall of greenery directly to the right.

On my visit the William Blake show was being installed, so I missed out on seeing any work, but I am assured that the Forum showcases ambitious exhibitions and it’s well worth checking out what’s showing whilst you’re in town.

20th July 2012

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